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On learning from catastrophes, victory in war and peace, and acting as human learners without being compelled
"Americans learn only from catastrophes and not from experience." A more suitable observation on the contemporary world would be hard to find. Yet those are the 109-year-old words of Theodore Roosevelt. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.
■ When competitions arise in most areas of life, the safest wager is not necessarily on the side with the most resources or the best starting position, but rather with the side that learns fastest. The failure to aggregate information, to learn from mistakes, and to adapt to threats and opportunities alike is the surest way to turn a position of strength into a pile of failure. Examples range from the Allied victory in World War II to the triumphant rise of Japanese automakers (after a much-delayed start). To learn quickly and deliberately is a virtue.
■ But learning without having to be compelled by disaster is also a virtue. It requires both humility and initiative to look at the way things are done and ask, "What are we missing? What should we improve? What holds us back?"
■ Too often, we really do wait for catastrophe: A pandemic, a barbaric war of aggression, a murder in an elementary school. When we wait to learn from disaster, too often we depend upon emotions to carry the day -- motivating us to respond, then providing the sustaining motivation to keep going until something productive is done.
■ We would be much wiser to learn not by waiting for catastrophe to come knocking, but to perform the kind of honest self-criticism that says we can do better without having a fire lit beneath us. Teddy Roosevelt was also fond of the aphorism, "Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are."
■ That is both rational and optimistic advice. While it seems like it sets a ceiling on what should be expected of people (that is, we should not be expected to act as superhumans beyond our capacities and resources), it can equally be read as an admonition not to sit around waiting to learn from catastrophe. The verb is "do", not "wait". The real measure of who we are as a society comes not from how we respond when things go terribly wrong, but from how hard we try to learn when everything looks like it's going right.